Community banishes summertime blues

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Just last month, prospects for summer in Stillmeadows looked grim.

The western Anne Arundel County community's swimming pool, closed for two straight summers, was a grimy mess. The crumbling basketball court had become a depository for unwanted mattresses. And the children in the 250- townhouse community near Pioneer City feared they'd have to spend this summer as they did the last two - chasing each other with garden hoses and catching lifts to the mall.

But community activists, led by grandmothers Wanda Hebron and Glenda Gathers, wouldn't have it. They pushed Anne Arundel County and its nonprofit, Arundel Community Development Services, for funds to give the children something to do. Last month, the county came through with $4,000 to repave the courts and $15,000 from community development block-grant funding to run a Boys & Girls Club program. To make it work, a local condominium association raised an additional $20,000 to open the pool, so it could run the program there.

In three weeks, a summer program was up and running. And yesterday, 27 children officially graduated from the Boys & Girls Club's first summer program in Stillmeadows, a once-stable community of neat town homes that now fights the same battles with drugs and blight that its neighbors know well.

Wearing pale yellow, knee-length T-shirts emblazoned with "Stillmeadow Playground - Summer Fun 2003," the graduates beamed as County Executive Janet S. Owens handed each of them a new backpack for school.

As president of Stillmeadows I Condominium Association, Hebron has tried to focus county resources on what many consider the forgotten, poorer neighborhoods near Fort Meade. To her, getting funds quickly in a tight budget year signified an atti- tude change from the county.

"This is the first time they took our concerns seriously, and I've been on this fight a long time," Hebron said. "If we didn't have this program, some of the kids wouldn't have anything to do and they'd have been around here tearing up the neighborhood."

Reginald Broddie, executive director of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Boys & Girls Club, agreed that structure is key to a program's success.

"If you give kids an opportunity to create their own recreation, then you are not going to like what they create," he said.

With the Boys & Girls Club planning field trips, helping with homework and running game days, Broddie said few children wanted to miss out on the fun. The participants, who ranged in age from 5 to 14, rarely missed a day in the five-week program, especially when the group traveled to Six Flags and the Smithsonian museums in Washington.

The trips were the best part for Jerica White, an energetic 10-year-old who said the program taught her a lot of "good stuff" - such as how to make and keep friends.

If the pool hadn't opened, Jerica said, summer would have been "destroyed."

Her friend Shanae Johnson agreed. Last summer, the eighth-grader and her friends spent the summer dousing themselves with water hoses.

"Mostly we sat around, being hot, talking about what we would do if we were in the pool," Shanae said.

But the improvements couldn't mask some of the problems that come with holding a summer program in an area struggling against drugs and crime.

On the program's first day, the staff took children to the newly resurfaced courts only to find a dead dog near the basketball hoop. The canine was likely the victim of an arranged dogfight - a common practice on the courts.

And because the program lacked an indoor, air-conditioned space, children such as Shanae found themselves sitting in 85-degree heat trying to read while gnats and other bugs attacked their bare arms and legs.

Owens said the county is working with nonprofits and leadership groups to build an indoor community center for future programs. And Hebron, fresh from her victory, vowed she'd be on the phone today trying to find funds for a playground.

But yesterday's event was about celebrating what the children of Stillmeadows already had: new backpacks, new T-shirts and a summer's worth of field trips to remember when they go back to school.

"We had fun. We really appreciated it," Shanae said. "I'd like to have it inside next year, but hey, I can't complain. At least we had something."

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